Today, in an age when individual autonomy and an array of freedoms and rights reign supreme, the following statement by St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) appears to be blind submission, the abandonment of our [fallacious] freedom to create our own identity: “I will believe that the white that I see is black, if the hierarchical Church so defines it” (1).
Blind submission or something else?
Did Ignatius, the author of The Spiritual Exercises and founder of the Jesuits, relinquish his freedom to think when he submitted to the Church? If so, then we can accuse St. Augustine (354-430), a Doctor of the Church and author of The City of God, of the same fault. He said, “Indeed, I would not believe in the Gospel myself if the authority of the Catholic Church did not influence me to do so” (2).
How about Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890), author of Apologia Pro Vita Sua? How could this independent thinker of the highest intellectual caliber, simply believe whatever the Church declared? He said, “I had no difficulty in believing [in Transubstantiation] as soon as I believed that the Catholic Roman Church was the oracle of God, and that she had declared this doctrine to be part of the original revelation. It is difficult, impossible to imagine, I grant—but how is it difficult to believe?” (3).
Three great luminaries of the Catholic faith—one revert and two converts—throw their complete assent and trust into the Church. Why? When we read Ignatius’ quote a bit further, we begin to understand. Supported by reason, he reached a stage in his faith where he could give his complete trust and assent to what the Church proposes because he sees Christ acting through her:
“For, I believe that between the Bridegroom, Christ our Lord, and the Bride, His Church, there is but one spirit, which governs and directs us for the salvation of our souls, for the same Spirit and Lord, who gave us the Ten Commandments, guides and governs our Holy Mother Church.” (4)
The relationship between Christ and His Church
Through the confluence of reason, grace, faith, mystical experience, and time, Ignatius understood the inseparable relationship between Christ and His Church, a relationship described in the Catechism as beginning on the Cross, and as a Mystical Body, a marriage, and the Sacrament of Salvation:
- “The origin and growth of the Church are symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of the crucified Jesus. For it was from the side of Christ as he slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth the ‘wondrous sacrament of the whole Church” (CCC766).
- “Christ and his Church thus together make up the ‘whole Christ’ (Christus totus). The Church is one with Christ. … For if he is the head, we are the members..” (CCC795).
- “The unity of Christ and the Church, head and members of one Body, also implies the distinction of the two within a personal relationship…often expressed by the image of bridegroom and bride” (CCC796).
- “The Church, in Christ, is like a sacrament—a sign and instrument…of communion with God and of unity among all men. The Church’s first purpose is to be the sacrament of the inner union of men with God” (CCC775), the “universal sacrament of salvation” (CCC776).
Would you rather live in the sureness of truth or continue guessing?
Initially, Ignatius pinned his hopes on a career; Augustine, on a vain rhetorical eloquence and Manicheanism; and Newman, on proving Anglicanism’s Via Media. But the beauty and the relentless tug of truth pulled them into a reality where they no longer found it necessary to sift truths through the filter of their own fallible judgments. “God, who alone is good, knows perfectly what is good for man…” (5).
Monsignor Ronald Knox sketched out only two paths when following a set of doctrines. One path follows relativism to a diminished reality; the other humbly and trustingly follows an infallible authority to what is objectively true.
“Either you must respect to the full the prejudices of all minds; in which case the whole area of religious certainty is whittled down to a few moral commonplaces. Or each mind must admit that it is not infallible, and that the Church is wiser than A here, than B there; she knows, they are only guessing.” (6)
The assent of faith
Many of you (including me), read innumerable books on the Catholic faith. In fact, we invest so much time with them, like Pope Benedict XVI, we call them our “friends”. But after years of reading and of lining our bookcases, can you recall the details of each book? I can’t. Does that render our effort worthless? Absolutely not! Although we’d like total recall, it isn’t necessary. Each book and each detail coalesce to form and strengthen the foundation of our assent of faith, our overall love and embrace of Christ and His Church. In a way, once the book (truth) brings us to Christ, it accomplished its purpose. Although it always remains accessible, it steps into the background, waiting on a dusty shelf to refresh us once again.
[T]he assent of faith…is concerned with the whole, and only secondarily has it to do with the part, with the separate contents to which faith assents. A man remains a Christian as long as he makes the effort to give the central assent, as long as he tries to utter the fundamental Yes of trust, even if he is unable to fit in or resolve many of the details. (7)
Pope Benedict reassures everyone that, if we give our central assent, we remain Christians regardless of how little or how much we know. And as our knowledge grows, our central assent brings every other truth proposed by the Church, into a right relationship with each other.
Now, let’s return to Ignatius’ “white is black” statement. What at first appears to be blind submission is actually the beautiful, sweet, and trusting embrace of truth in Christ and His Church. He reached a point in his quest for truth where he could give his full assent of faith. Borrowing a theme from Marcus Grodi’s popular show on EWTN, it’s the culmination of a journey, a coming home.
Have you experienced the same journey, the same sense of coming home?
1. Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola,140-141
2. Faith of the Early Father, Juergens, v. 3, 1581
3. Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Newman, 238
4. Spiritual, 140-141
5. Veritatis Splendor, St. Pope John Paul II, #35
6. Difficulties, Knox and Lunn, 52
7. Faith and the Future, Ratzinger, 32